2011 featured pernicious political posturing over what we know and how we discover it. Florida Gov. Rick Scott told the state’s universities that they should be educating students in areas “where people can get a job in this state.” Accordingly, he intends to invest higher education dollars in physical science, math, engineering and technology departments, and let the humanities, arts and social sciences go fallow. Scott singled out anthropology as an example of a job-less education, saying, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
Well, think again. Anthropology sits at the busy intersection of nature and culture, one that has seen explosive accelerations, enormous traffic jams and massive pile-ups in the human condition for at least the past 2 million years. Its lessons are instructive for Florida, the nation and global communities: how peoples have exploited their environments for food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals, how they fashioned their cultures, economies, industries, technologies and jobs, and why they went boom and bust.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, graduates in career-oriented majors, such as science, math and technology, do indeed have a higher probability of landing a job — at least initially. But, a few years down the career path, liberal arts graduates “frequently catch or surpass graduates with career-oriented majors in both job quality and compensation.” Why? Because of their knowledge of ethics, communication and social dynamics, which is adaptive to rapidly changing global economic, political and cultural environments.
Scott might be interested in the career paths of people who majored in job-less disciplines: Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, medieval history and philosophy; George W. Bush, 43rd U.S. president, history; Dick Cheney, former U.S. vice president, political science; Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court justice, English; Michael Crichton and Ursula K. LeGuin, best-selling authors, anthropology; Sally Ride, astronaut and first woman in space, English; Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. president, 33rd governor of California, economics and sociology.
Earlier in the year, three Republican presidential candidates went AWOL from modern science. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry opined on talk shows and stump speeches that 20 years of research on climate change involving thousands of investigators was “junk science.”
Apparently, they choose to be deaf/dumb/blind to evidence. They didn’t issue a retraction when a leading skeptic of global warming, physicist Richard Muller and his Berkeley Earth group, confirmed the findings of the “junk” scientists: Global temperatures have risen sharply since the mid-1800s because of a jump in greenhouse gases, notably CO2. “Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other [scientific] teams,” said Muller’s Berkeley Earth study, which has solid conservative credentials: It was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and foundations established by Bill Gates and the Koch brothers.
While on the stump, Bachmann and Santorum proudly flashed their pre-Enlightenment credentials, espousing their belief in intelligent design as the best biology curriculum for the nation’s students. One can’t be polite about this. What’s next? Scrap Pasteur and teach the Bad Air Theory of disease in medical school? Dump Aristotle for the Flat Earth Theory in geography class? Bachmann and Santorum are entitled to their private discomfort with the established knowledge of Darwinian evolution. But, hubris aside, their personal discomfort is not a rationale for national policy on science education.
The prize for sanctimonious social science goes to Cal Thomas’ editorial piece on the Sandusky-Penn State affair (Journal-World, Nov. 15, “Penn State’s shame — and America’s too”). The blame, he writes, extends beyond the individuals involved to all society, to the “free-loving ’60s, (when) we seem to have taken a wrecking ball to social mores.” Really? No song at Woodstock advocated rape or pedophilia.
Thomas also blames human nature, “but society — buttressed by religion — once did a better job of keeping human nature in check,“ specifically, keeping “lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations” in check as “sinful.” Hmmm. You’d think being buttressed by religion against sin would naturally have kept the Catholic clergy in check. Yet, as we now know, its systematic sexual abuse and pedophilia were rampant, with the crimes abetted and covered up by repeatedly moving the abusers from diocese to diocese. It started long before the free-loving ’60s,” and went beyond one locker room at Penn State to parishes worldwide. Its innocent victims are countless.
The complex challenges of the world in 2012 and beyond demand more from our self-declared leaders and sages than wishful, simplistic nostrums as our default solutions or salvation.
Originally published in the Lawrence Journal-World on January 2, 2012.
Usually, your close relatives resemble you. Or at least they have the same number of limbs.
Not true, however, for Brachymeles lukbani, a species recently discovered by Cameron Siler, one of the museum's graduate students in herpetology. This critter (which has lost its limbs through evolution) looks like a snake but is actually a skink — a type of lizard. The genus Brachymeles has a diverse membership.
"They have the full suite from limbed to limbless, from working limbs with five fingers to no limbs at all," says Siler.
But this makes the lizards an excellent group for studying how and why limb loss occurs. Brachymeles lukbani "swims" through rotten logs and undergrowth, looking for food. In that situation, possessing limbs might not be very useful, or even counter-productive.
Siler's research has increased the museum's holdings of skinks, making it a leader in skink research
Caiman latirostris — a crocodile
Some of our specimens, recently discussed in our post about specimens as snapshots in time, take on a unique role after entering the museum's collections. Certain reptiles, amphibians and fishes undergo a process called clearing and staining, which helps scientists look into the critters.
After being turned translucent by a digestive enzyme called Trypsin (found in the bellies of many vertebrates including us), dyes are added. Bones and hard tissue are stained red with a chemical called Alizarin, and soft tissues are highlighted by adding Alcian blue.
The contrasting colors help scientists study the morphology - the skeletal and skin structures - of an animal. As an example, they prove especially useful for studying frog skulls, which undergo a peculiar dance of morphological change as frogs mature.
Fieldwork and lab work are at the heart of what we do at the Biodiversity Institute.
Mark Robbins, ornithology collection manager, bridges fieldwork (collecting specimens, recording data, investigating habitats) and lab work (DNA analysis, taxonomic classification, morphological comparisons). All specimens caught in the field spend time in the lab; all of the analyses and data obtained in the lab help to answer research questions about the life in the field.
Robbins' research questions pertain to the migration patterns of small birds called marsh and sedge wrens. To do his work, he collects specimens from the field in Northwestern Missouri and elsewhere. He is one of many Biodiversity Institute scientists who spend time in both the field and the lab - collecting and then analyzing data. To learn more about Robbins' work, investigate the gallery below or learn about his research methods.
The word “fossil” often conjures images of Tyrannosaurus rex skulls, mammoth femurs, or other large bones. But those aren’t the only ones that survive through the millennia, and certainly aren’t the only ones that have importance.
KU Biodiversity Institute graduate students Sarah Spears and Kathryn Mickle study prehistoric fishes. Their fossils are so small that, in order to get them ready for study, Sarah and Kathryn have to use tiny tools to remove excess rock. Sometimes, even metal tools are too rough and inexact, so they switch over to porcupine quills — just sharp and flexible enough to clean tiny fish bones.
Inside the herpetology collection
A jar of snake specimens
Most of the museum's reptile, amphibian and fish specimens are kept in jars, along with ethanol to preserve them. These collections contain nearly one million specimens that provide vital information to biologists doing research in areas ranging from evolutionary patterns to locomotion to conservation. Here are some interesting facts about our collections:
1.We try to keep the fluid collections in relative stasis in regard to temperature and humidity. The goal is 65 degrees F and 50% relative humidity. In practice, however, the temperature is fairly steady but the relative humidity varies quite a bit.
2.The oldest specimen in the herpetology collection is Ceratophrys aurita, KU 98129, collected in Brazil in 1863. It, however, is an exchange specimen. The oldest specimen collected by a museum affiliate is a Thamnophis elegans from New Mexico, KU 2408, collected in 1880. The oldest specimens collected in Kansas are two copperheads and a massasauga from Franklin county in 1888. The history of specimen collecting for these collections has been steady ever since. There are 60 specimens collected prior to 1900.
3.The specimen with catalogue number 'KU 001' is Alligator mississippiensis. The specimen is on display in the panorama at present for the Adopt-A-Specimen exhibit.
4.The sheer volume of ethanol used in the collection is impressive. We have a 1795 gallons for amphibians, and about 1875 gallons in large specimen tanks. The reptiles utilize about 1500 gallons. That's a 5,170 gallon capacity for reptiles and amphibians. Double that in fishes, and add a touch for the others. For everything together, 12,000 gallons total is a reasonable estimate. Of that, a substantial amount of space in the jars is taken by specimens and air, so we would actually have about 8,000 gallons of 70% EtOH (ethanol) in the wing. That's about 5,600 gallons of Ethanol (about 102 drums), significantly less than a typical residential swimming pool.
Two M.Sc. students in the Chaboo lab presented posters on their research at the annual meeting of the the Entomological Society of America, Knoxville, TN, 11-14 November 2012. The ESA is the largest professional entomological organization in the world, and the annual meeting is a great place to contact other entomologists. Mabel and Sofia were able to get feedback and ideas to improve their research, while catching up many interesting talks in beetle systematics, genomics, climate change, and fieldwork.
Sofia Muñoz (MA student, mentor Chaboo), is one of 20 students in the U.S. selected to participate (fully funded) in a NSF-funded Thematic Collections Network Short Course on Biological Specimen Informatics, at the Richard Gilder Graduate School, American Museum of Natural History, New York, in May 2013.
Sofia, Marianna Simões, and Mabel Alvarado presented their research at last weekend's annual meeting of the Kansas Entomological Society, Pittsburg, KS. Caroline and Matt Gimmel also presented a poster, "Beetle families of Peru."
Mabel (co-mentored by Michael Engel) and Victor Baruch Arroyo-Peña (mentor Jorge Soberón ) won third place for their poster, "Problems in the usage of historical data: experiences based on modeling data of the genus Alophophion Cushman, 1947 (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae: Ophioninae)."
After a fast paced semester, Stop Day is an exclamation point between formal classes and exams. In spring, exam week is followed by another exclamation point: Graduation weekend. This is a particularly special one as five undergraduates in my lab are graduating. KT and Joe have been here the longest, over two years. Now they fledge, going off to the Peace Corps and to graduate school respectively. Tom, Reed, and Riley are also heading off to graduate school or research labs. So very special to see them at this great junction in life. And particularly poignant to meet their parents for the first time. We, parents and teachers, have helped them thus far on their journey and now we must take our positions in the back.
The end of the semester is approaching fast, with finals just around the corner. Everyone in the lab has made significant strides this semester. Choru passed his comprehensive exams and is now ABD. Mabel presented her paper, ‘Ten new species of Triclistus’, at the Central States Entomological meeting, in Jonesboro, AK; this is her 3rd manuscript this year. Sofia has worked out the protocols and is accumulating PCRs for the first plate of sequences for her project. After submitting grant submissions throughout the semester, then waiting and waiting, Sofia, Mabel and Choru were excited to receive today's successful award news; these grants are critical to carrying out fieldwork in Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, and U.S.A. this year.
Undergrad researchers Reed, Tom, Joe and Riley are getting acquainted with the process of manuscripts – responding to reviews. Dan accepted a tenure track position at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas, to start Aug 1. Matt’s monograph from his dissertation research passed review. He continues identifying new families in the Peru beetle samples — a new discovery today, Lutrochidae (travertine beetles), likely a new species.
In contrast to these guys, the lab PI has been such an underachiever!
Our exhibition, ‘39 Trails: research in Amazon Peru’ (http://www.spencerart.ku.edu/exhibitions/39-trails.shtml) in the KU Spencer Museum of Art, opened Mar 22. It is so gratifying and wonderful to see the student-produced sculpture, biological prints, photos, insect displays, the creative writing essays, the blog, and the brilliant insect-themed comic book.